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Karl Rove and the Damage Done

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Message David Michael Green

Imagine you could be a gambler, and never lose. Now you understand Karl Rove.

How can a gambler never lose? Only when he gets to throw the dice, and pick up the winnings, while somebody else stakes the bet.

To a certain degree, that’s the story of any political consultant. Somebody else finances the campaign, somebody else is the candidate, and the consultant becomes a political genius if the candidate wins, or the poor guy who just happened to be stuck with a lousy horse should the candidate lose. The only thing at stake for the consultant is his reputation, but even that hardly seems vulnerable. Bob Shrum managed to amass an amazing 0-7 won-loss record in the presidential sweepstakes and still got invited by John Kerry to make it 0-8 in 2004.

But Karl Rove is much more than a successful consultant to presidential candidates. His candidate made it to the White House, and to a very large extent, Rove was handed the keys to both the policy and politics hot-rods when they got there. That means that when we say that somebody else provided the stakes with which Rove got to play, we’re no longer just talking about campaign contributors with dollars on the line, or candidates with reputations to be made or lost. Now we’re talking about American soldiers and Iraqi civilians who’ve paid the highest price possible for Rove’s policy decisions. Now we are talking about American citizens who will be working long hours to finance the debt that Rove ran up. Now we’re talking about an entire planet suffering the consequences of global warming negligence for generations to come. And that’s just the start.

Rove The Gambler came to the White House with the best deal imaginable from his perspective. He could, in governing, gamble for the highest stakes, and if he won he would be feared and revered as the greatest political genius of his generation, perhaps of the century. But if he lost, other people would pay the price. To those of us whose morality chip wasn’t somehow misplaced on the assembly line, such a game might seem momentarily tempting but ultimately too reprehensible to play. Not so for Karl, who not only played, but played with a vengeance, literally and figuratively.

Rove had a dream, and he brought it with him to the White House. The first thing to notice if one wants to understand the character of this man – and therefore also the character of the presidency he drove – is the nature of this dream. It was not Karl Rove’s great aspiration in life to cure cancer, or eradicate poverty, or bring peace to the Middle East, or double the number of college students in America. No, handed the keys to the government of the world’s sole superpower, Rove had something else in mind – something infinitely more meager. His great dream in life was to emulate his hero, Mark Hanna, and reestablish a generational-long hegemony for the Republican Party in America.

If that seems like a small-minded aspiration for a man who fancies himself as a student of history and the big picture, it is. But all the more so because Rove was prepared to do anything in order to achieve his little goal. It is not unfair to say, then, that Iraq has been smashed, a million people murdered, the American military broken, the American treasury depleted, the environment dangerously threatened, the Constitution tattered, and the country’s reputation eviscerated – all on a gamble that things would break the other way and... what? Leave the GOP in power for the next quarter-century. Oops. As Maxwell Smart might’ve said, "Missed it by that much!" What an incredible amount wagered for so little potential return, even if it had gone all right.

Of course, the greatest irony of all is that, not only did the Karl Rove wrecking machine destroy all of those things that most people care about, but it also wound up profoundly demolishing the very goals that Rove himself most sought. The Bush presidency is utterly in the toilet, and it would seem clear even with 17 months remaining that it will be regarded as the very worst presidency across all of American history. As for the Republican Party, its woes were only beginning to become evident with the election blow-out of 2006. Not many people can say that they managed to lose control of both houses of Congress in one election. That rarely happens. But Karl Rove did it.

And 2008 will be even more devastating. Rove might even be correct in arguing that the Democrats will nominate Hillary Clinton and that she is enough of a liability to cost her party the White House, even in a can’t miss year. I doubt it, because if there’s one thing Clinton is, it’s smart, and if there’s another, it’s ruthless, and she will therefore turn the Republican candidate – with his help, no doubt, as we’re already seeing today – into a clone of George W. Bush. Faced with the choice of the obnoxious but harmless Hillary, on the one hand, and four or eight more years of Bushism, on the other, enough voters will hold their nose and choose aggravation over devastation, handing Clinton the White House. But regardless of what happens in the presidential race, congressional elections will be absolutely devastating for the GOP, not only widening Democratic majorities in both houses, and not only ending both the Republicans’ capacity and will to act as a block on legislative progress, but actually threatening the very existence of the party itself. This happy problem, which couldn’t possibly be visited upon a nicer group of fasc..., er, people, will only then be amplified in coming years and elections, as today’s young voters – who have already rejected the Republican Party – matriculate through the electoral system, replacing dinosaur GOP devotees who cut their teeth on Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

Ironically enough, then, Rove destroyed the very thing that he had mortgaged everything for in seeking its empowerment. And even more ironic yet, he may well have created the very antithesis of what he most coveted: There may well be generational dominance of a single party in our future, yes – just not the one that Rove happened to have in mind. While many of us can’t be bothered to shed even crocodile tears for the demise of the Republicans, the collateral damage from Rove’s all-in bet has been devastating to everything else that we care about. But, again, no worries for him. He bet with other people’s stakes, and he can probably still get lots of work from those candidates willing to do anything to win office (read virtually every Republican).

I don’t know what happens in a childhood to produce a figure like Karl Rove, but it can’t have been good. Like a serial killer with ice-water running through his veins, for whom the idea of compassion or remorse is a foreign concept, Rove is the quintessential amoral man – the very definition of a sociopath. Don’t take the way he treats you personally – it’s not that he doesn’t like you. He just utterly couldn’t give a sh*t one way or the other, dude. But woe unto you if you possess something that he wants, like money, a vote, cannon fodder capability, or shock troop potential. He will simply say or do whatever is necessary to liberate you from your dollars, your common sense or your life in order to achieve his goals. There are myriad examples, but one which is highly illustrative is Rove’s response to Hurricane Katrina. While you and I looked at our television screens and saw there a disaster in which compassion and immediate action were the watchwords of the day, Rove – the guy Bush put in charge of the crisis – was at that exact same moment spinning the gears in his head, literally thinking instead about the partisan political implications of relocating a quarter-million black (and therefore likely Democratic) voters out of the state, thus perhaps putting Louisiana back in the Republican column in future elections.

It’s no wonder that a guy with such empathy defects could spot George W. Bush coming from miles away, like freight train rolling down the mountain. Bush was the perfect partner for the exploits of someone like Rove, who once trained under both Donald Segretti and Lee Atwater. Jim Hightower (himself one of the many unfortunate members of the Rovian Wreckage Club) once mused that Bush père – infinitely more sane and humane than his son, though still borderline on both fronts – was born on third base, thinking he hit a triple. If that’s so, the mind strains to find the appropriate metaphor for the Boy King. Perhaps we could say that he was handed ownership of the entire ball club based on his family name, only to think he had earned it on his own, pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Trouble is, that’s no metaphor at all – it was quite literally true. Sigh.

In any case, it was just this child of privilege who – unlike a similarly situated Roosevelt or Kennedy – utterly lacked the compassion thing, that Rove picked out to be his perfect pony. There would be no political tactic too cheap, no empty bumper-sticker slogan too banal, no policy choice in the service of down-and-dirty politics too destructive, and no shattering of the very fabric of constitutional governance too egregious with George W. Bush as his candidate and president. Rove told him what to do and say, and Bush did it. For a while, though only with the massive assistance of 9/11, it worked.

Nevertheless, from the beginning, I found the notion that Karl Rove was a political genius to be as offensive as it was shortsighted. (And what does it say about the wisdom of our wonderful national punditry that they continued to perceive him as such, in some cases even after November 2006?) But the idea that Rove is a political genius is even more absurd today. In fact, the man has been an abject failure, a flaming disaster, by every metric that counts. Whether we compare his performance to his own aspirations, or we add up the overt wreckage, or the more subtle damage, or if we consider what could have been – in every case this "genius" is revealed in reality to be a pathetic loser.

First, Rove can be easily demonstrated to have completely failed even according to just the limited goals of his own ambition, leaving aside for the moment the matter of its sheer moral vacuousness. In his cover story on Rove’s implosion in The Atlantic, Joshua Green reports that the Great Guru had five particular initiatives in mind after capturing the White House, all in service to forcing into existence his dream of a permanent Republican realignment. He planned to "establish education standards, pass a ‘faith-based initiative’ directing government funds to religious organizations, partially privatize Social Security, offer private health-savings accounts as an alternative to Medicare, and reform immigration laws to appeal to the growing Hispanic population". Notice, again, that none of these were driven by the desire to produce good governance or to better the lot of the American people, and that all of them completely privileged politics over policy.

But notice, also, that every one of them failed in one fashion or another. The White House was able to channel public funds to religious organizations, but not nearly in the quantity it had in mind. It did pass No Child Left Behind, in an attempt to drive teachers out of the Democratic tent, but it had the opposite effect and has now become one of the most hated pieces of legislation in recent American history, likely soon to be unraveled or modified completely out of recognition. The others on the list were all complete non-starters, with two of them – Social Security and immigration – blowing up in the president’s face, and thus revealing his political impotence (some political capital, George) along the path to substantive failure. Thus, even if we leave aside Iraq (and anyone who believes the White House line that Rove had nothing to do with that decision needs to immediately see the nice man with the white coat and the cup of easy to swallow pills), Rove is a complete and utter failure purely against the benchmark of his own twisted aspirations.

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David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (, but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is (more...)
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